Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Review: Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Real characters, hilarious situations
Cons: A bit dated, two chapters that tell their own story
The Bottom Line:
Many funny tales
Book can make all laugh out loud
No matter your age




"I Want Some P.T.A.!"

For some reason, I never quite got around to reading all of Beverly Cleary's books. I don't quite know why that is since I loved the ones I read. They all featured kids in ordinary but funny situations. Henry and Ribsy was the first I read and it's a great case in point.

Henry Huggins has just one thing on his mind, fishing. His father's annual salmon fishing trip is just a few weeks away, and this year, Henry wants to go.

Unfortunately, Henry's dog Ribsy has been acting up. When he eats a policeman's sandwich while Henry is arguing his case, Mr. Huggins makes a deal. If Henry can keep Ribsy out of trouble for a month, Henry can go fishing. Henry quickly makes the deal. But can he do it?

I laughed my way through this book the first time around, and I did it again this time. The events of the book are perfectly normal and logical, but also very funny.

It works so well because these characters are real. Even though the book is third person, it is limited third person. We get all the events solely from Henry's point of view. We know exactly what he is thinking and feeling every moment. And Henry is very believable. It's never clear exactly how old he is in this book, but it is obviously elementary school. He behaves just like any other kid would. His neighborhood friends are easily as believable. And the adults in this world are perfectly developed. We see them through a child's eyes, yet they often surprise Henry with their actions.

It's been years since I read the book, so I was surprised to find that plot was a little slower then I remembered it being. This is more a slice of life tale then a plot driven book. As a result, two of the chapters are really a self contained story that only superficially has to do with Ribsy and the fishing trip. They are still highly entertaining, however.

Then there's my all time favorite Beverly Cleary chapter, "Ramona and the P.T.A." Those familiar with Mrs. Cleary's work will recognize Ramona from her own books. But before she became the main character, she was the annoying little sister of Henry's friend Beezus. It's rather hard to describe just how funny this chapter is, but it involves bones, lunchboxes, a screaming pre-schooler, a jungle gym, and a school full of mothers convinced that Ribsy is tormenting Ramona. I laughed almost as hard this time around as I did when I originally read it.

The book is over 50 years old, and it shows. From the metal garbage can that the Huggins family uses to the presence of radio and absence of TV, this book presents a picture of life in the 50's. The story and characters are vivid enough I doubt this will be a problem for today's kids.

The book is extremely well written. The vocabulary is simple enough that kids in the 8-12 year old target age range should have no problem reading it. It flows so smoothly that it would make for a great read aloud book as well.

The book has gone though many different editions over the years, and as far as I know, all of them have included pictures. The edition I read had about half a dozen line drawings per chapter. They are simple but add to the book's humor.

The book may be dated, but the characters and humor still shine through. Today's kids should love Henry just as much as the original readers did and just as much as I did in the 80's. Henry and Ribsy is a classic for all generations to enjoy.

This review is part of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, hosted by Shannon Messenger.  Visit her blog to find other participants.

Movie Review: The Princess Bride

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Sword fights, pirates, humor, and true love
Cons: Only if you're Humperdinck (I told you to stop saying that name!)
The Bottom Line: In all of recorded history, there are 5 movies that are rated the perfect date movie. This one leaves them all behind.

Action and romance
Melded together with laughs
Who doesn't love it?




"Have You Ever Heard of Plato?  Aristotle?  Socrates?  Morons!"

The Princess Bride is an odd little movie. I'll freely admit I didn't completely get it the first time around. But each time I have watched it sense, I have absolutely loved it.

The movie opens with a sick boy (Fred Savage). His grandfather (Peter Falk) comes in and offers to read him a special story. Only because it has sports in it does the grandson agree to hear the story. But he is soon swept up into a magical story. Fortunately, we get to go along for the ride.

In a land far away lived a beautiful girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright). She enjoys tormenting the family servant Westley (Cary Elwes). Soon, they fall in love, and Westley sets off to seek his fortune in the world, promising to return for her one day.

His ship, however, is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, a man who takes no prisoners.

Three years pass, and Buttercup has agreed to marry Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) even though she doesn't love him. On the day they announce their engagement, Buttercup is kidnapped by three evil men who intend to kill her. However, they are being followed by a man in black. Who is he? Will he rescue her? Is he even trying to rescue her?

So why didn't I get this movie the first time around? I often ask myself that, but my best guess is because the plot rambles all over the place, the scenes with the grandfather and grandson seem out of place, and the lines everyone quotes don't seem all that funny the first time around.

But on the second viewing, my opinion changed. When I wasn't trying to figure out the plot, I saw the humor in the piece. It's spoofing fairy tales. As such, it is brilliant. This isn't an in your face spoof like many of today's spoof movies. It's very subtle. You couldn't point to a scene and say it is lifted from something else. But it spoofs the types of plots from fairy tales. And the dialogue truly is funny if you give it a second chance. Some of these lines absolutely crack me up now. In fact, while trying to come up with a quote for the title, I had trouble narrowing it down from nine. And I'd already eliminated some great quotes that I thought were too long.

Yes, the plot does seem to ramble at times, especially when it suddenly produces a complication like the Fire Swamp or the Pit of Despair. But frankly, that is part of the charm. This isn't a movie about getting to the ending or even guessing the ending. It's about enjoying the ride.

And the ride is certainly enjoyable. There are sword fights, pirates, a miracle man, a giant, plots, counter plots, and R.O.U.S.'s (Rodents of Unusual Size, of course). Even while spoofing fairy tales, it takes itself seriously enough that you get caught up in the action. True, you know certain characters will make it out alive, but you've just got to know how. This really is a good date movie. It's got plenty of action for the men and a tender romance for the women.

Everything is held together by great acting. In addition to the actors I've already names, it stars the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Christopher Guest, Andre the Giant, and Wallace Shawn. And I can't leave out Billy Crystal and Carol Kane who are absolutely hysterical in their cameos.

The movie does suffer at times when they try for special effects. Let's face it, the movie is 25 years old and we've come a long way sense then. But it's easy to overlook that minor flaw.

The Princess Bride is a modern classic. Any time I find it on TV, I wind up sitting down and watching the rest. If you give it a chance (or possibly two), you'll find yourself falling in love.

Book Review: Deadly Appraisal by Jane K. Cleland (Josie Prescott #2)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Real and fun characters
Cons: Slow start
The Bottom Line:
Characters help book
Overcome slow starting plot
Make book worth reading




Josie finds Murder at a Silent Auction

Antiques dealer Josie Prescott has had her life turned upside down. After testifying in a price fixing scheme in New York and losing her father, she moved to a small town in New Hampshire. Unfortunately, she has found that life in a small town isn't always quiet either. And she finds more danger in Deadly Appraisal, the second book in the series.

Prescott Antiques is beginning to thrive and Josie is truly beginning to build a life for herself in New Hampshire. She is absolutely delighted to be hosting the annual fundraiser for the Portsmouth Women's Guild. The silent auction has gone well, and the fundraiser looks to be a huge success. But, just as he winners are about to be announced, event coordinator Maisy Gaylor dies on stage, the victim of poison.

Josie had been working closely with Maisy to plan the event, and Josie can't think of a quieter, nicer woman. Who could have possibly wanted her dead?

With boyfriend Ty Alvarez, the local chief of police, out of town, Josie finds herself dealing with the gruff and unfriendly Detective Rowcliff. Rowcliff seems to be treating her as a suspect until he makes a startling statement, Josie could have been the intended victim. At first it seems crazy, but then Josie learns that someone from her past in New York is out of jail. Who was supposed to drink the poison? And who is the killer?

The story starts out with a bang, just after the murder. Even so, it took me a little while to get into the story. I'm blaming this more on my lack of reading time then on the book itself because once I had the time to sit down and read, I got hooked. I thought I had the killer figured out early on, but the constant red herrings kept making me forget about them. There are a few sub-plots involving antiques. Since I'm not a fan, I am glad to report those don't slow the action down for long.

The characters are real, and the supporting cast is entertaining. I was a little surprised to see the romantic interest shoved aside so soon in the series, but I think it was deliberate to make Josie have to deal with Rowcliff. He was someone we love to hate, which is always fun. Josie's employees are real and interesting, as are the suspects. But my favorite supporting character is local reporter Wes Smith. His paranoia is funny, and I've got to wonder about all his sources.

Josie herself is often an emotional wreck. That's a change from the strong main characters I am used to who rarely show emotion. A couple times it got annoying. However, considering everything the character has been through, I find it much more realistic then the books I normally read.

The writing is a little uneven. It's written at a higher reading level then what I normally read, which means I can't fly through it. The problem comes with some of the dialogue. Every so often, I caught the author falling into patterns: dialogue, tag, adverb phrase, dialogue, tag, adverb phrase. Fortunately, that kind of thing only happened in a few scenes and wasn't repeated throughout the entire book.

The book got stronger as it went along, and by the end, I couldn't put Deadly Appraisal down. This is another enjoyable entry in the series.

Music Review: Beauty and the Beast - Original Broadway Soundtrack

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Old and new favorites seamlessly combine
Cons: A missing song from the show, a couple of changed lyrics
The Bottom Line:
Several fun, new songs
Plus ones you already love
A disc that I love




Only a Beast Wouldn't Love this Beauty of a Soundtrack

It's no secret that my favorite Disney animated movie is Beauty and the Beast. So of course, I was intrigued when they turned their version of the classic fairy tale into a full fledged musical. The first time I saw it, I fell in love with it. I have pulled this soundtrack out a couple times a year ever since.

As with most musical soundtracks, it helps to have some idea of the story. Those familiar with the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast will have no problem figuring out what is going on here. When Belle's father is captured by Beast, she agrees to take his place as Beast's prisoner. The two don't get along, but eventually the ice breaks. Unfortunately, Gaston, the handsome but egotistical jerk in Belle's village, is determined to marry Belle no matter what it takes.

The cast is outstanding. The only name I recognized originally was Tom Bosley who plays Belle's father Maurice. Susan Egan is Belle. Since she went on to play Meg in the Hercules animated movie a few years later, I now recognize her voice, too. Terrence Mann is Beast, with the various enchanted objects in Beast's castle being led by Heath Lamberts as Cogsworth, Gary Beach as Lumiere, and Beth Fowler as Mrs. Potts.

Naturally, all the songs from the animated movie are here. I must admit it took a few listens to get used to someone else singing them. Once I did, however, I came to enjoy these versions just as much as the animated cast. The one difference is "Beauty and the Beast." I have never warmed up to Beth Fowler's voice on this song. Since I think she does fine on the others, I'm not sure what the problem is. Guess I just still love Angela Lansbury's voice from the movie too much.

Of course, to turn the movie into a full length Broadway show, they added some songs. And those songs are great. My favorite by far is "Me." This is the song Gaston sings while proposing to Belle, and it's an absolute riot. I mean, he assumes Belle wants to "be some he-man's property." He does admit that women have their uses - "Mainly to extend the family tree." Gee, I can't understand why Belle turned him down. (end sarcasm)

Another favorite is "Home." Belle sings this song after agreeing to take Maurice's place at the castle. It's a heartfelt ballad that allows her to share the pain she is feeling. Yet it ends with her resolve to find a way to change her life again.

Beast gets a couple of solos that really allow us to see his heart. "How Long Must this go on?" is less then a minute, but "If I Can't Love Her" is a full length song. Both show us the pain that Beast is going through, making him human in our eyes. Since these are both sung before he starts showing this to Belle, it really helps develop his character.

"Human Again" has an interesting history. Originally written for the movie, it was cut but then added back for the Broadway production. The song was such a hit there, they added it back to the Special Edition of the movie. This song is sung by the enchanted objects as they begin to see hope that the spell might be broken. I'll admit, this song took a while to grow on me. I really didn't come to appreciate it until after it was added back to the movie. Either way, I like it now.

What really makes the song work for me is the dialogue. It comes right after "Something There." Both songs include quite a bit of dialogue from the play that show the beginnings of Belle and Beast's romance. In fact, there are some very funny lines included that really show how both characters are changing.

Since Howard Ashman wrote all the music for all the songs, everything flows together well. If you didn't know, you'd be hard pressed to tell which songs came from the movie and which were written for the play. Original lyricist Alan Menken had died before they turned the movie into a play, so Tim Rice was called in to write the new songs. His lyrics are great, bringing real emotion to the characters.

Being a Broadway musical, these songs have a lush orchestral background. The full orchestra is absolutely beautiful. If you like Broadway soundtracks, you won't be disappointed.

This CD was actually recorded while some final tweaks were being done to the play. If you go see the play now, you'll notice minor differences. The biggest I notice is the bridge in "Home" where Belle sings something different from the productions I've seen recently and the words written in the booklet that comes with the CD. The ironic thing? I like the original words better.

There is one song from the play missing from this recording. Belle sings "A Change in Me" late in the show, just before the climax. I don't know if it was added to the show too late to make the recording or if they cut it for some other reason. But if you are looking for it, you'll be disappointed.

Several songs include extended musical interludes for dance sequences, most noticeably "Gaston" and "Be Our Guest." Obviously, they lose a little something without the actors there to dance for you. But the music is still quite fun to listen to.

I associate these songs so strongly with Disney's Beauty and the Beast now I actually miss them in the original movie. This soundtrack is an absolute must for fans of that film or Broadway musicals in general.

And if you get a chance, see the Broadway production of this play.

CD Length: 1:12:24
Tracks:
1. Prologue (The Enchantress)
2. Belle
3. No Matter What
4. No Matter What (Reprise)/Wolf Chase
5. Me
6. Belle (Reprise)
7. Home
8. Home (Reprise)
9. Gaston
10. Gaston (Reprise)
11. How Long Must this go on?
12. Be Our Guest
13. If I Can't Love Her
14. Entr'acte/Wolf Chase
15. Something There
16. Human Again
17. Maison des Lunes
18. Beauty and the Beast
19. If I Can't Love Her (Reprise)
20. The Mob Song
21. The Battle
22. End Duet/Transformation
23. Beauty and the Beast (Reprise)

Movie Review: Pete's Dragon

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: The perfect cast and fun songs make for a great film
Cons: None I can see
The Bottom Line:
Imaginative
Filled with some wonderful songs
See dragon today




It's a Brazzle Dazzle Movie

Growing up, my brother and I often had a hard time finding a movie we'd both agree to watch. There were a few, however, we'd almost always agree upon. One such movie was this Disney musical. And I find I enjoy Pete's Dragon just as much today as I did growing up.

Pete (Sean Marshall) is a poor orphan. He's been adopted by the mean Gogan family run by the matriarch Lena (Shelley Winters). The Gogans make him work from morning til night and beat him for the slightest thing.

So, naturally, he runs away. He's tried it before and been caught, but this time he has help in the form of Elliot. Elliot is a dragon. And while he doesn't always think about what he's doing, he means well. And he really wants to help Pete.

Pete and Elliot happen to find the town of Passamaquoddy on the coast of Maine. Their first trip through town doesn't go well, so they find themselves out by the lighthouse, where they make friends with Lampie (Mickey Rooney) the lighthouse keeper and his adult daughter Nora (Helen Reddy). Have they found a real home at last?

Meanwhile, Doc Terminus (Jim Dale) and his assistant Hoagy (Red Buttons) have wandered into town. The Doc is a quack, selling fake potions and running from one town to the next just ahead of the lynch mob. They get word of the dragon and set out to capture him for the money they can make from his body parts. Will they get their hands on Elliot?

This movie holds up fairly well when you consider it is 30 years old. Since Elliot is an animated dragon living in the real world, lots of special effects are called for. When he's invisible, we still see the results of his presence. And when he is visible, he needs to interact with the world around him. Now I will admit that the animation looks dated. Being 30 years old, Elliot is hand drawn and 2 D. But, I find his presence in the film completely believable. And the cast does a good job of reacting to him as well.

The movie is a musical, with 10 songs scattered throughout. The most famous is Oscar winning "Candle on the Water," a ballad that Helen Reddy gets to sing. It is beautiful. My favorite, however, is the song that Pete, Lampie, and Nora sing when Pete is invited to stay at the lighthouse. "Brazzle Dazzle Day" is just plain fun. Frankly, I enjoy all of these 10 songs in their own way. Yes, even the Gogans' two songs.

What's amazing about this movie is how much fun it really is. The movie deals with some serious subjects like alcoholism (Lampie spends much of the first half drunk), child abuse, and a plot to kill an animal. Yet the movie finds just the right balance between making the villains menacing enough that we care about the outcome and funny enough that we can't take them too seriously.

A lot of the credit for that goes to the cast. With comedy greats like Shelley Winters and Red Buttons in the villain roles, you just can't take them too seriously. Jim Dale's Doc Terminus is a perfect vaudeville villain. I want to boo him when he's on screen. And the Gogans get some of the best slapstick action, making them less then scary. That's not to say the movie is completely carefree. The climax, set during a bad storm, is certainly suspenseful.

Now my focus on the actors playing the villains shouldn't imply the rest of the cast is bad. Helen Reddy makes Nora completely loveable. And Mickey Rooney's Lampie is a great guy as well. I just wish he didn't spend so much of the early part drunk. Sean Marshall really has to carry the first part of the film by himself, but he brings Pete to immediate life.

This movie isn't super popular today, which is a shame. If you're looking for a new to them film to entertain your kids, pick up Pete's Dragon today.

Movie Review: North by Northwest

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong story that draws you in...
Cons: ...weakened by a few slow parts.
The Bottom Line:
Finally I can see
Why Hitchcock is so famous
For good suspense films




"Patience is a Virtue."  "So is Breathing."

Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) leads a boring life. The highlight of his week is the play he will be attending with his mother. But when he pops into his club for a quick drink before the show, he is kidnapped.

When he arrives at a country estate, his kidnappers start calling him George Kaplan. Roger has no clue who Kaplan is and says so quite forcefully. Whether they believe him or not, he is forced to drink bourbon and left alone in a car going down a winding country road to die.

The only problem for them is he survives. Determined to find out what the heck is going on, he sets out to track down Kaplan. His efforts land him as the prime suspect in a diplomat's murder.

With his only lead being a hotel room in Chicago, Roger sets out cross country by train. It is there he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a beautiful woman with a secret of her own. Can Roger find the truth? Maybe, but he will have to face low flying crop dusters and a chase across Mount Rushmore to do it.

I've tried various Hitchcock films in the past and haven't enjoyed them. This is my fourth Hitchcock film, and I finally found one I liked.

The story starts rather quickly as do the twists. By 20 minutes in, I was completely confused and hooked. The movie mostly held my interest all the way until the thrilling climax.

The reason I was hooked so quickly was Roger Thornhill. He's an every man, and I could easily identify with him. As I was watching him, I kept wondering what I would do in his situation. Fortunately, he didn't faint or die (what I would have done), or the movie would have been really boring.

I'm a sucker for witty banter, and this movie has some great lines. Roger has my sense of sarcasm, and he has some truly great lines. It wasn't a laugh a minute by any stretch of the imagination, but the quips at the right time helped make him more human.

The acting was top notch as well. Cary Grant has a lot riding on his shoulders, and he never even comes close to dropping the ball. Eva Marie Saint is perfect as the mysterious woman on the train. There really are no weak links in the cast.

The film was released in 1959, and it shows in a couple of ways. First, the film backdrops, especially near the end, are occasionally obviously sound stages. There are limited special effects, and they are mostly fine. Nothing in the special effects department really stands out as either good or bad.

The bigger problem is the pacing. While the movie starts quickly, the scenes on the train tend to drag. Yes, the romance was important, but it really slowed down the story. I'd find my mind starting to wander before the action picked up again. I often find this with older films, so it is more a reflection of my taste and the time it was made then a slight against this film in particular.

I was about to write Hitchcock off entirely, but after North by Northwest, maybe I'll give him another chance. If you are also unfamiliar with the work of this legend, this might be a good place to start.

Music Review: The Collection by Amy Grant

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Classic songs still enjoyable 20+ years later
Cons: Dated production
The Bottom Line:
Amy's early best
And Christian music classics
All on one CD




"Stay for Awhile" and Listen to These Classic Songs

Amy Grant's career can be divided into two halves. There is the blatantly Christian part and the crossover Christian/pop part. Whether by accident or design, her first "best of" release pretty much divides the two periods exactly in half. Since it came out in the 80's, we are talking about some dated music. But the songs in The Collection still hold a place in my heart today.

The disc starts out with the requisite new songs recorded to entice fans to buy the disc. "Stay for Awhile" has become a classic in its own right. The theme really hits home with its picture of old friends meeting again years later. It's got a somewhat dated sound, but not nearly as dated as the other new track, "Love Can Do." Could that song be any more 80's? The effects and keyboards really do date it. This song is about how love can ebb and flow in a relationship, but you need to stay and make the sacrifice for it to last. Like several other Amy songs from the era, this one is ironic given her personal life a decade later.

From here, we get into the classics. And I do mean classics. The songs are presented in reverse order, so you can really follow how her career has evolved. Up first are two definite 80's pop/rock tracks from Unguarded. "Find a Way" was a huge hit at the time, again a song about love, but in this case a song about love overcoming hurts. While not as big a hit, I have always enjoyed "Everywhere I Go," probably because I love Psalm 139, which inspired it. It takes the passage about God always being with us and updates it to today's language.

Of course, there are obvious selections here. "Angels" and "Thy Word" from Straight Ahead and "Sing Your Praise to the Lord," "In a Little While," and "El Shaddai" from Age to Age were all obvious choices. While some have faded from popularity now, they were all huge hits at the time. And "Thy Word" and "El Shaddai" are still sung as praise choruses in some churches today.

Also an obvious choice is "My Father's Eye." This song was Amy's first mega hit. This tender ballad is still as powerful today as it was then. It's a simple song asking for God's perspective on situations and people. Like all of Amy's early work, it's got a simple production, keyboard and guitar with light drum backing. It's production does belay it's 70's roots, but it's not too bad.

There are also some interesting choices here. "Emmanuel" shows up from A Christmas Album. Granted, it's a fun song and works the rest of the year, too, but this still surprised me. Also surprising is "Too Late." Don't get me wrong, I love the song. But I have never understood why they chose the live version instead of the studio version. One potential argument for including both of these is having a song from every single release on the disc. However, that falls apart since there is no song from her self-titled debut.

One song I am thrilled to have included is "I'm Gonna Fly." This quiet song from her In Concert albums is a usually overlooked gem. I just love it because of its celebration of life and Heaven.

The disc ends with "Ageless Medley." While several years old, it was previous released only to radio. Produced after Age to Age came out, it's a 6 minute medley that combines quite a few of her hits. This isn't just a remix but a new recording since most of the songs sound slightly different from their original recordings. This is also the only appearance here of anything from her debut since "Old Man's Rubble" is included. The songs flow together well and it makes for a great disc closer.

There are some truly classic songs on this disc. While some show their age more then others, any fan of Christian music from the 70's and 80's will love the memories The Collection brings back.

CD Length: 1:09:09
Tracks:
1. Stay for Awhile
2. Love Can Do
3. Find a Way
4. Everywhere I Go
5. Angels
6. Thy Word
7. Emmanuel
8. Where do You Hide Your Heart
9. Sing Your Praise to the Lord
10. In a Little While
11. El Shaddai
12. I Have Decided
13. Too Late
14. I'm Gonna Fly
15. All I Ever Have to be
16. My Father's Eyes
17. Ageless Medley

TV on DVD Review: The Fall Guy - Season 1 Volume 1

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great stunts, especially for a TV show
Cons: Some production, a couple weak episodes, only half the season
The Bottom Line:
Most episodes fun
But I'd get full season set
Instead of just half




"It's True I Hire My Body Out for Pay."

Now here's a show from the 80's that's still lots of fun.

Colt Seavers (Lee Majors) is a professional stunt man. But like most people in the entertainment business, he finds that doesn't cover all of his bills. So he also works as a bounty hunter for bail bondswoman Samantha Jack (Jo Ann Pflug). Helping him out are his cousin Howie (Douglas Barr) and his protege Jody (Heather Thomas). And it's a good thing he can do stunts, too, because that ability comes in mighty handy when the crooks run.

In addition to a full season set, Fox released the first season of this classic show in two halves. This is the first half set. It contains three discs and eleven episodes, including the two hour pilot. In these episodes, Colt goes to Hawaii twice, gets caught up in international intrigue, tangles with the mob in Vegas, tracks an arsonist to a spooky company town, lands in jail (on purpose), faces a corrupt sheriff, and goes undercover in a biker gang. Because the show was set in Hollywood and Colt was a famous stunt man, we also gets lots of cameos. People popping up in these episodes include Farrah Fawcett (in a very touching post divorce scene), Tom Selleck, Lou Ferrigno (aka TV's Incredible Hulk), Robert Wagner, and Linda Evans.

As you would expect from a show about stunt men, this show features lots of stunts. You usually get one "movie" stunt and several "real life" stunts over the course of the episode. There are lots of car chases, car jumps, and people getting into and out of helicopters while in the air. There's even a jump out of a plane without a parachute. This is a guy's action show. It may be TV, but these stunts are incredible if unbelievable. (How many jumps can a car make before it stops running?) The plots, while obviously just an excuse for stunts, are decent. And a few really stood out and had me hooked.

It does suffer from a little 80's cheese, however. The acting from the leads is usually good. The three true leads (Lee, Douglas, and Heather) make a great team. The chemistry of their characters is great, and I love watching them on screen together. Watching them togher isn't as easy as it sounds since Jody is often sidelined. I sure remember her being a bigger factor in the show. Maybe it's my faulty memory, or maybe they used her more as the show continued. The guest stars are usually fine, although some of them overact. It's never too bad, however.

What drives me crazy from a production stand point are the voiceovers. Probably to save on cost, we often get dialogue with a shot of the actor's from the back or their car driving down the road. And it is obviously dubbed dialogue because it sounds different. Minor detail; and I must admit I love looking for it even as it annoys me.

This set is exactly half of the full season set. You even get half of the bonus features, a featurette about the show. It contains interviews with creator Glen Larson and series stars Lee Majors and Heather Thomas about how the series came to be and their take on why it was popular.

Since this set is usually priced at half of the full season set, you aren't saving money to get only half of the season. In fact, I've seen deals recently where the full season was about the same price as this set. So do some looking before you buy, because if you are a true fan of the show, you'll want the full season.

Included Episodes:
1. The Fall Guy Pilot (Two Hours)
2. The Meek Shall Inherit Rhonda
3. The Rich Get Richer
4. That's Right, We're Bad
5. Colt's Angels
6. The Human Torch
7. The Japanese Connection
8. No Way Out
9. License to Kill Part 1
10. License to Kill Part 2
11. Goin' for it

Music Review: Drummer Boy by Jars of Clay

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun rock version of a Christmas classic
Cons: Two remixes
The Bottom Line:
For Jars of Clay fans
Remember, it's a single
So buy it as such




A Christmas Single

When I started listening to Jars of Clay, I snatched up everything I could find. While I normally don't buy singles, I made an exception for their Drummer Boy EP since it was the only thing Christmas that Jars had done at the time. Fortunately, that will change next month, and I can't wait.

This disc has had an interesting history. Originally released in 1995 after the huge success of their debut CD, it was retooled and re-released in 1997. Only two of the tracks are the same. I bought the 1997 version, and that is the one I will be reviewing here.

The disc starts out with the Christmas classic that gives the disc its name. As you'd expect, "The Little Drummer Boy" has a heavy drum beat throughout. Guitar is also featured predominately, but you other stringed instruments like violin and cello between the verses. It's a fun rock take on the classic. If this is what their upcoming Christmas CD will be like, I will be very happy.

I'm usually not a fan of remixes, and the next two tracks don't do much to change my mind.

Up first is the "Grinch Mix" of "The Little Drummer Boy." This mix really plays up the base and percussion from the original. The vocals are much more pronounced as well, and it is easier to enjoy the harmonies. But it feels like it is missing something to me. Like other instruments. It's not quite a cappella and it's not quite instrumented. It's not bad, but I prefer the first track over this one.

At this point, the disc moves away from Christmas music. Up next is the "Fluffy Sav Mix" of "Blind" a song from their debut release. It takes on an acoustic feel on the first verse with the vocal and picked guitar being the main focus. Then the programmed drums come in, and they take over for most of the song, with the guitar being in the background.

I think my problem with both these tracks is the heavy percussion. While I enjoy percussion, I don't like it drowning out the other instruments and becoming the focus. Since it pretty much is the focus, it bothers me. Not that this is surprising since that is usually the case on remixes.

The final track on the disc is new, at least as best as I can tell. "Wicker Baskets" is an instrumental track. It's a beautiful guitar duet. It's slow, contemplative, and just those two instruments. A neat little track to close out the disc.

With two tracks I like and two that are just okay, you might wonder why I gave the disc four stars. Basically, I bought the disc just to get the first track. And I bought it at an after Christmas sale, so I didn't spend that much. Rating the disc on the whole, I can't give it a full five stars, but I really do love the first and last songs.

Drummer Boy is worth tracking down for Jars of Clay fanatics or fans of the title song. Pretty much anyone else will want to skip it and wait for their full length Christmas CD.

CD Length: 17:24
Tracks:
1. The Little Drummer Boy
2. The Little Drummer Boy (Grinch Mix)
3. Blind (Fluffy Sav Mix)
4. Wicker Baskets

Book Review: Facing Your Giants by Max Lucado


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Encouraging lessons from the life of David
Cons: None
The Bottom Line:
Facing a Giant?
This book will remind you
Who you should turn to




Fighting Giants - Lessons from the Life of David

The last couple of months have been rough for me. I knew I needed to refocus my attention on God. And I knew there would be no better author to do that then Christian author Max Lucado. I'd had Facing Your Giants sitting by my bed since my birthday, so I decided it was finally time to read it. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.

This book is a study from the life of David. An important Old Testament figure, David was taken from obscurity (shepherd, youngest of eight sons from a small village) and made king of all Israel. As a youth, he faced Goliath, a nine foot tall man no one else dared fight. Then he was hunted by sitting King Saul. Once he did become king, he fought hard to rid Israel of her enemies. Yet he fell into the sins of adultery and murder before watching his family fall apart and try to overthrow him.

And yes, there are lessons for all of us in this. The theme that Lucado keeps returning to is focus. When David's focus was on God, he prospered and his enemies fell. When his focus was on the circumstances, he stumbled into sin. Along the way, we get to watch him keep his promise at potential personal cost. We see the power of friendship as evidenced by Jonathan's encouragement in the midst of trials. We learn to make our family a priority. And most importantly, we learn to never give up.

Here's the thing about Max Lucado's books. Very rarely do they contain anything I haven't heard a million times before. Take, for example, the highlights of the chapters. Each chapter includes two or three key sentences highlighted in the middle of a page. Going through and reading those sentences by themselves, I find very little that I don't already know intellectually.

Nevertheless, the book really spoke to me. Why is that? Because Lucado is able to paint word pictures that speak to my heart. He uses not only David but other stories from life to really drive his point home. And his words are so tender, you can't help but be encouraged. These are the words of a friend wanting to help. Even when he is challenging, there is an air of love to the words that make them so much easier to swallow.

Take the central premise: "Focus on giants - you stumble. Focus on God - your giants tumble." Nothing original or earth shattering there. Yet it is first introduced at the end of the opening chapter. By that point, Lucado has demonstrated exactly how David was focused on God while facing Goliath and how that differed from the soldiers in the army. So while that quote isn't something I didn't already know, the truth was able to strike me again.

Ironically, I spent time this summer in a Bible study on the life of David. While this book often brought out different points and used different stories, I found looking at the life of David again so soon to be really great.

No, my giants haven't gone away. But I have been reminded of Who is on my side and Who can defeat those giants. If you need to be reminded of that basic truth, Facing Your Giants is for you.

Movie Review: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: Looks great, Jim Carrey's Grinch
Cons: The story doesn't work on any level.
The Bottom Line:
Simple story stretched
But the new parts add nothing
Original best




Looks Great, Less Filling

I've been a fan of Dr. Seuss's book and the Boris Karloff TV version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas my entire life. I'd have the book read to me year round. In fact, at one point, I had it memorized. When I first heard about this movie version, I was skeptical yet hopeful. As I saw pictures, I became encouraged. Maybe it would actually be a great movie to add to my list of holiday traditions. But then I saw it.

The citizens of Whoville love Christmas. Actually, love isn't a strong enough word. Their entire world revolves around Christmas - Christmas decorations, Christmas cards, Christmas presents, Christmas clothes. If it has something to do with Christmas, they love it.

The Grinch (Jim Carrey) does not share their feelings. He hates Christmas, the whole Christmas season. But please ask why because I think I know the reason. See, The Grinch was abandoned as a child in Whoville. Since he looked different from the other citizens, he was teased as a kid. Friendless, Christmas was especially bad. And he has come to hate everything associated with the holiday.

But this year, he's had enough. This year, he will ruin their Christmas. All he needs is a terrible, awful idea, a costume, and his dog Max. Will his plan succeed?

Now, before I start trashing the film, let's discuss the good, because there is some good here. Dr. Seuss had an unique drawing style, and the movie captures it perfectly. The movie won an Oscar for makeup and was nominated for art direction and costume design. It should have won in all three categories. I was able to forget I was watching humans and truly believe I was watching a Dr. Seuss story brought to life.

I have a love/hate relationship with Jim Carrey. Sometimes, I love his films. Sometimes the previews for them send me running in another direction. Here, he is perfect. His over the top antics really bring the Grinch to life. And his more serious moments are perfect as well. I can't imagine anyone else making the part work. Equally good is Taylor Momsen as little Cindy Lou Who. She brings the right mix of sweetness and determination to the suddenly pivotal character. The rest of the cast is fine, although no one really stand out.

So what when wrong? The story. Think about it. The original book is a kid's picture book. It takes maybe ten minutes to read if you read very slowly. That was stretched into a 25 minute cartoon which works. But now you're going to take that source material and make it into a ninety minute movie? I don't think so.

Producer/Director Ron Howard tried to get around this fatal flaw by giving the Grinch a back story and a reason for hating the Whos and Christmas. I get the need to expand the story. But it just doesn't work. The original story is really about the commercialism of Christmas and a reminder that Christmas is about more then that. Now, the story is suddenly about revenge and not treating people poorly based on how they look. Don't get me wrong, that's a great message. But it's not the message of this story. In the original, the Whos have never truly forgotten what is important about Christmas. Here, they have. Guess this makes me a purist, but that's not in keeping with the spirit of the original and just rubs me the wrong way.

And the movie ruins the story without being entertaining. The best part of this movie is the 30 minutes that sticks to the original story or the cartoon version. Until then, I was actually bored waiting for the Grinch to start stealing Christmas.

My recommendation? Skip this movie and get the Boris Karloff cartoon. Or better yet, read the original book. Either would be a better Christmas tradition then this disappointing movie.

Book Review: Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat


Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: A good mystery for kids they can definitely understand
Cons: It doesn't come with pancakes
The Bottom Line:
Pancake loving sleuth
Mystery kids will understand
Parents enjoy, too




Blame This Book for My Love of Mysteries

In case you somehow missed it, I love mysteries. And this picture book is the first mystery I remember hearing as a little kid. And you know what? Nate the Great is still a great mystery for today's kids.

Meet Nate the Great, the neighborhood detective. He's just finishing up breakfast (pancakes, of course) when Annie calls. She's lost the picture of her dog Fang that she painted the day before and wants help finding it. So Nate goes over and helps her hunt down the leads. But can he solve the mystery?

The book is a picture book, but it might be a little long for some kids. My paperback copy clocks in at 62 pages. Of course, every page has at least one picture on it and some two page spreads have very few words on them at all.

The illustrations are by Marc Simont. They really capture the characters and add to the humor of the book. They alternate between black and white and minimal color. Two pages are black and white, then the next two are color. The color pictures aren't full color but are heavy on the primary colors, especially yellow and red.

This book was the first in a series. Later books in the series are advertised as easy readers. I think this one could work as well. The vocabulary is a bit harder then something like Dr. Seuss, but it's a good stepping stone book. And it certainly works as a read aloud before then. That's how I first heard it.

And the plot is good. In fact, I have a feeling that this book influences my taste in mysteries to this day. The solution to the mystery can be worked out by anyone reading it, even kids. And, while they might miss it, everything is explained in the end.

The book has only a handful of characters. There's Nate, his client Annie, cat obsessed Rosamond, and Annie's younger brother Harry. There isn't much depth to them, but they serve the story well.

I will say I fell in love with Nate for one important reason. He loves pancakes. His constant longing for them are rather funny. And anyone who loves those can't be bad at all.

And there is subtle humor for the adults. Nate the Great narrates the book in short declarative sentences. If read in a Joe Friday monotone, the style really adds to the book. There's just a hint of sarcasm in the book, and the deadpan delivery really makes those lines funnier as well.

This book was originally published in 1972. The only thing that is at all dated is Nate mentioning bringing his rubbers in case it rains. Other then that vocabulary issue, today's kids should have no trouble following this case.

My family didn't discover the rest of the series until my younger brother was born. We read them, but always found this book the best of the series.

Nate the Great is one book I asked for over and over as a child. And my parents were only too happy to oblige. Is it any wonder I love mysteries as much as I do today?

Website Review: DeepDiscount.com


NOTE: Sadly, the site has changed.  The last time I looked at this site, it was charging for shipping on every order.  And their prices weren't as good as they used to be.

What follows is a review I wrote in 2007.  It was true for the site then, and I hope it will be true for the site again in the future.

I'm not quite sure how I first stumbled onto Deep Discount DVD, but I quickly fell in love. While I visited the sister site, Deep Discount CD, I never bought anything from them. Back in the spring, both of those sites vanished to become Deep Discount. They've expanded their inventory, but it's still the same great site I've been using to support my media addictions for years.

Deep Discount is attempting to become a media go to site to rival Amazon. With the rename, redesign, and relaunch, they expanded their inventory to include books and video games. And they continue to stock movies in all formats (DVD, both HD-DVD and Blu Ray, and UMD for PSP), movie memorabilia like movie posters, and CD's. They also carry cell phones, something I didn't realize. Since I don't have one, I have no idea how their prices are in this area.

Prices

The prices are one thing that keeps me coming back. While they don't advertise just how much they discount their items, every item I have looked at is discounted. I have gotten so I just look at Amazon and Deep Discount when I am looking to buy something on-line. Their price is usually within a dollar of Amazon's - sometimes higher, sometimes lower. Pre-order items or just released top sellers are discounted more then average, but every time has some kind of discount.

I am absolutely in love with their new books section. I don't know if it's temporary because of the new launch, but their prices are usually better then Amazon in this category right now. New hardcovers are about a dollar cheaper, and all their paperbacks are discounted about 10%, something Amazon hasn't done in years.

The site offers a low price guarantee. They promise the lowest total price on each item in stock when you include shipping. I have sometimes found others to be lower, but very rarely when shipping is involved. Even so, I have never tried to take advantage of their guarantee.

Search and Selection

With the redesign, they seem to have improved their site search feature as well. There old one used to drive me crazy, but now it's great. When you enter something in the search box, they give you the top listings for the item. Unlike their old search, you can be fairly general with your search terms and still find what you want. The most popular items appear first, and all the categories are mixed in together. On one side, they have options to narrow your search by category, which does help. Or you can start by selecting the category you want from a drop down box when you enter your search terms. Obviously, you'll have to do some looking if you are looking for an unpopular or obscure item. But if it is in stock, you'll be able to find it.

Which brings me to another point. Unlike many websites, this one only offers new items for sale. And they don't waste time with out of print items. If the item hasn't been announced for release yet or has gone out of print, you won't be able to find it in their database. This can be confusing at times. However, every time I have searched for something I know is available, I have found it. It's only the stuff I wasn't sure about that I haven't been able to find.

Shipping

And now we come to the true beauty of the site, their shipping policy. Standard shipping is always free to all 50 US states and territories. It doesn't matter how much or how little you order. This is how they sometimes get away with items being slightly more for their low price guarantee. But I love being able to order one or two items, not worry about the cost, and get it for free.

In stock items usually ship within two business days. From there, they take a week to get from their warehouse in Chicago to me in Southern California. They ship USPS Standard Delivery, which offers no tracking number. Their website claims usual delivery is 5 to 10 business days with a very rare 15 business day delivery time. I have never had to wait longer then the 10 business days to get my order.

Pro-orders are timed to arrive at or after the release date. I have only tried a few pre-orders, but they have arrived anywhere from a day early to a few days after release date. This is the site that accidentally shipped copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows two weeks before the release date. And no, I wasn't one of those lucky ones who got it early.

If you are impatient, they do offer other shipping options. For a flat rate of $5.95, in stock items will be shipped to arrive in 2-5 business days. For $9.95, you can chose second day air. All back orders and pre-orders are still shipped standard delivery. I have never used either shipping option, so I can't comment on service or delivery.

Customer Service

Fortunately, I can't comment on their customer service for problems. I have received every item I ordered in a timely manner. I haven't gotten anything damaged or defective, so I've never felt the need to return anything or call their 800 number. Considering I've been a customer for years, I consider that good service.

One Gripe

The site never seems to remember who I am. I have visited the site on several computers, and I always have to log in. The longest I think it has remembered me is a week. They used to have a "Remember me" box, but that is gone now, so maybe it is a feature instead of a bug.

Conclusion

The move to Deep Discount has done nothing but make a great web site even better. I have recommended the site to family and friends and plan to be a loyal customer for many years to come.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Music Review: Songs by Rich Mullins

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great songs with timeless lyrics
Cons: No more songs from Rich
The Bottom Line:
Truly great music
From a much too short career
Great for Mullins' fans




Collection of Songs You Don't Want to Miss

Sometimes you don't know what you have until it is gone. I was never a fan of Christian music artist Rich Mullins when he was alive. I bought a couple of his CD's, but found some of the songs too weird for my tastes. I guess I just wasn't up for trying to decipher the complex poetic metaphors he used in his lyrics. Frankly, I still don't get all of them, but I enjoy the poetic nature of them now. But I did truly love some of his songs, so I was thrilled to get this best of collection when it came out in 1996. Sadly, it was released just a year before Rich was killed in an auto accident. And while Rich may no longer be with us, the Songs on this collection will be with us for a long time.

As with any disc of this nature, there are new recordings to get fans to buy it. Here, there are three new recordings, but only one new song. (Don't worry, it will make sense.) The new recording is "We are not as Strong as We Think we are." And this is a prime example of what can still drive me crazy with Rich's music. What exactly is this song about? I seem to remember comments at the time about this being a love song. If so, it's the song of a break up. Either way, the lyrics are Rich at his poetic best describing humanities strengths in one line ("Forged in the fires of human passion") and contrasting it with our weaknesses in the next ("Choking on the fumes of selfish rage"). And the constant reminder of the title works to put me in my place. Stylistically, Rich was firmly in the adult pop category, and this song is no exception. It's a mid-tempo song that is guitar and piano heavy with the occasional appearance of strings.

I remember when the CD came out I was shocked to find a new version of the classic "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" here. That song was a huge hit for Amy Grant in the early 80's. Turns out, Rich Mullins wrote it and he takes this opportunity to do his take on the song. It's not quite as fast as the original, but I love it just as much. Yes, it includes the classical feeling instrumental build up that makes Amy's version so great. What sets this version apart is a previously unrecorded bridge that borrows from the Psalms to remind us why we should be praising God.

The final new recording of the disc is "Elijah." This song first appeared on Rich's first release back in the 80's. And that version is fairly 80's, too. It gets a fresh arrangement. Frankly, I still prefer this one over the original. Again, the song is keyboard heavy with guitar and strings staying pretty much in the background. The song talks about his excitement to leave this world and get to Heaven. And while he didn't "Go out like Elijah/with a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire," I find it appropriate and melancholy that one of the final songs he recorded in the studio was this song. Maybe one reason I prefer this version over the original is that knowledge.

Over the course of his career, Rich Mullins sang many songs that were instant classics. It would be absolutely impossible to put together this collection without including "Awesome God." Filled with rich strings, this modern praise classic is just as great today was it was in 1988. It's got a driving beat that brings home the truth "Our God is an Awesome God." Even after having led this song in worship for years, I don't see how he gets all those words into the verses so effortlessly.

"Sometimes by Step" is an interesting song. The chorus of this song showed up first, then the full version with verses showed up on his next CD. The chorus part, usually called "Step by Step," is a worship service classic most Christians are familiar with. Not as many are familiar with the great verses, which are included here. Together, it's a song of commitment to God each step along the journey of life.

Rich played an instrument that very few people play any more, the hammer dulcimer. This is a string instrument that is hit like a percussion instrument. It shows up in several of the songs here. Most noticeably, Rich used it for a long introduction to "Calling Out Your Name." It also makes its presence known in "Creed," a musical version of the Apostle's profession of faith. And it shows up in the fun if convicting "My One Thing."

Speaking of fun and convicting, the disc includes "Screen Door." The song is completely a capella and has an infectious beat and catchy tune. The lyrics are based on the book of James and are an in your face reminder that our faith needs to be backed up by our actions. Yet it's got some fun word pictures in it. "Faith without works/Is like a song you can't sing/It's about as useless as/A screen door on a submarine."

While never reaching the giant status of some of Rich's other songs, I've always loved the last two songs included here. "Verge of a Miracle" is a song of hope, reminding us that God is always near.

"Hold Me Jesus" is one of my all time favorite songs. It's a song of surrender when you've hit rock bottom. It's got images of small faith and terror with the chorus crying out "Hold me Jesus 'cause I'm shaking like a leaf." I especially identify with the bridge, which confesses to fighting God just because of pride. The song is quiet and slow, making it an even better prayer. It's not even three minutes long, but it is powerful.

While I personally don't love every song on this disc, I can understand why each was included. They were all radio hits when released and represent some of Rich's best known songs.

And me? After Rich's death, I started to appreciate his music much more then I did while he was alive. I now own all his CD's. But this remains the one I listen to the most.

Any Rich Mullins fan will love having his best in one place. And any Christian music fan will recognize many of these great Songs stuffed full of timeless truth. This CD belongs in every home.

CD Length: 1:07:49
Tracks:
1. Sing Your Praise to the Lord
2. Awesome God
3. Sometimes by Step
4. Creed
5. We are not as Strong as We Think We are
6. If I Stand
7. Screen Door
8. Let Mercy Lead
9. Elijah
10. Calling Out Your Name
11. My One Thing
12. Boy Like Me/Man Like You
13. Alrightokuhhuhamen
14. While the Nations Rage
15. Verge of a Miracle
16. Hold Me Jesus

Movie Review: The Kingdom

Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: Jennifer Garner (and the other actors)
Cons: Weak story, cardboard characters, horrid camera work
The Bottom Line:
The actors do try
But flaws of movie are big
And they pull it down




My Kingdom for a Steady Cam

There are very few actors who make a movie a must see for me. Jennifer Garner is one of them (even though I have missed a few of her films). So when I had the chance to see a sneak peak of The Kingdom, I went for it. Unfortunately, she wasn't enough to save this movie.

When a terrorist attack takes place in a heavily guarded American compound in Saudi Arabia, Americans are incensed. This is especially true for FBI agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx). He wants nothing more then to fly over there and personally track down the men responsible.

Since Americans were involved, the FBI is the logical choice to lead the investigation even though it is on foreign soil. Unfortunately, the Saudis aren't interested in American help. Their government doesn't want to look weak in front of their people, so they refuse. At first. But a few well placed connections get Fluery and a team of crime scene investigators sent over there for five days. The team consists of agents Janet Mayers (Jennifer Garner), Adam Leavitt (Justin Bateman), and Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper).

Upon landing, the team soon discovers that getting there was only half the battle. The Saudis aren't willing to let them conduct any kind of investigation. And the American consulate is more concern for the agents' safety then helping them accomplish their mission. Will they be able to cut through the red tape? Can they find the mastermind in just 5 days?

I will admit I was a little wary of seeing this movie because of the subject matter. I wasn't sure if this would be a political hit piece or not. Fortunately, it strives to stay very neutral and present us with a thrilling mystery. The last few minutes do give the film a deeper meaning, however, and are guaranteed to make you stop and think.

The acting was great. I felt like all the actors did a great job. This includes not only the well known American stars but also the actors playing the Saudis. There were some scenes with sub-titles as the Saudis talked to each other in their own language. These scenes never lasted for too long and added to the film.

That's where the good parts end, however.

I seem to be becoming a broken record, but I do not care for the stylistic approach many directors seem to take today where they use nothing but handheld cameras to film a movie. This is another such movie. In only a few scenes is the camera held steady, opting instead for this "realistic" approach. To further add to the problem, there are lots of quick cuts. Some scenes flick back and forth between multiple people, showing us any one of them for only a few seconds. As a result, I found it was way too much work to follow the events of the movie. And there were some times the combination of the two was enough to make me feel sick. The violence didn't do it, but the camera work did.

Add to that, the lack of character development. The best developed character in the film was the Saudi assigned to protect the team. Everyone else was pretty much cardboard characters made to do their part. Not that I'm blaming the actors. I just couldn't follow anyone enough to even care. And the movie was focused more on plot then anything else.

Not that the plot was really that great. I thought the idea of a CSI meets thriller had promise. However, plot points and characters seemed to disappear at random. There is one plot point brought up early on that is never addressed. About half way through the movie, the Saudi general who is leading that country's investigation all but vanishes. He was being set up to be an important character, then he is reduced to background character status. That stuff just leaves me scratching my head.

The movie is rather slow for a thriller. There's lots of political red tape that the team must get through before they even begin to investigate. The action picks up in the last half hour. However, I was so detached from the characters and story by this point, it really didn't grab me like it wanted to.

The movie was great for my Jennifer Garner fix. Other than that, The Kingdom was a real disappointment.

Book Review: The Baby Game by Randall Hicks

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Humor and logical twists
Cons: Small details; excessive flashbacks near the beginning
The Bottom Line:
Adoption myst'ry
Filled with great twists
So hard to put down




Who Knew Adoption Would Make for Such a Great Mystery

They say write what you know. Author Randall Hicks has taken that saying to heart in The Baby Game, his mystery debut. Randall is a nationally recognized expert on adoption who has written non-fiction books on the subject. With this book, he creates Toby Dillon, a young adoption lawyer who finds himself caught up in a simple adoption gone horribly wrong. And I am hooked.

Toby only partially grew up. Yes, he's an adoption lawyer, but he only does that part time. The other part of the time, he is the assistant tennis pro at the country club where he lives.

His latest adoption clients are really special to him. They are Hollywood power couple Brogan Barlow and Rita MacGilroy. But to Toby, they are his best friends. The three grew up together in a tiny town in northern San Diego county. So, naturally, Toby is anxious to help them.

Things go well, and the news of the adoption leads off a whirlwind press tour. Brogan and Rita invite Toby along, and it is looking like his little office may soon become very busy.

Then comes a phone call with a shocking revelation for Brogan and Rita. Naturally, they want to question the birth mother, but she has disappeared. What's really been going on?

Let's be clear, I loved this book. Between the humor and the twists, I couldn't put it down.

Having said that, the story starts a little slowly, with frequent pauses to give us some history on Toby. We do need to get to know him, but frequent flashbacks are a bit of a pet peeve. Once the story gets going, I could not put the book down, staying up late a couple nights in a row to read just a little further. The plot twists and turns all over the place, yet I found every twist logical and believable.

And the characters were real. Toby, Brogan, and Rita felt like true friends by the end of the book. Even the background characters came alive for me, especially Toby's family. I hope we see more of them in future books.

And the book is funny. Toby narrates the events, and his jokes did much to keep me reading. While he might crack a joke at someone else, many of them are aimed at himself. I found the self-deprecating humor quite endearing. But don't think this is all fun and games. Things get very serious in the second half as the plot unfolds.

And the writing is polished. The author's previous writing experience obviously helped, because the story just flowed. I flew through the pages.

Unfortunately, a few things could have been a little clearer. I spent quite some time trying to decide just how old the main characters were. There was one scene where the characters ate breakfast twice. These were all minor issues that had nothing to do with the plot, but they did bother me.

Author Randall Hicks has created a new series that shows lots of promise in The Baby Game. I can't wait to visit Toby and company again.